The first string comes out to play As the evening crowd takes to the Boardwalk, puppet master James Starck and friends take the stage.

August 24, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen

OCEAN CITY -- For all its curb-side attractions, the Boardwalk is also a center stage. And deep into the night, the stage is set for street performers -- the "colorful" denizens of Ocean City After Hours.

You have seen him, then. The guy with the lizard puppet. His name is James (Jim) Starck, and the 50-year-old man has built a fleet of marionettes. The German native has chicken-wired, masking-taped and foam-wrapped 50 puppets -- from E.T. to Yoda to Godzilla and this summer's main attraction: a roving, nameless Raptor that just wants to be loved.

Pick a night (weather permitting) and Boardwalkers will encounter Starck (landscaper by day) jiggling and walking his strung-up Raptor. Approach, if the mood strikes. And people do stop -- and stare, touch and pet the man's puppet. He must have the gift.

"Well, it's a different crowd at night, a crazy crowd ... everything from drugs to crazy teen-agers," Starck says. "I'm a big kid myself."

He's been out here for seven years -- ever since "a dear friend of mine, Sunshine the Clown," suggested he begin street performing. Sunshine the Clown is long gone, but Jim Starck has become a funky fixture.

With his monster puppets and donations bucket, Starck can rustle up $50 on a weird night. In the afternoons, he has a steady gig at the Jolly Roger amusement park, where he works the back stage.

"You like strange stuff? Then, step right up," Starck says at the park. A boy steps right up. He soon finds a lanky puppet bobbing above his shoulders. "Let me give you a back rub," Starck says, in his lizard voice. "It's so nice having a dinosaur nibbling on you, isn't it?" The boy is speechless.

"That is so weird, I know," Starck says.

Starck's show-stopper is his trademark "surprise." Maneuvering the Raptor within inches of the boy's face, Starck emits a screeching noise that nearly launches the lad clear back to Baltimore. It's the same "surprise" that awaits the curious on the Boardwalk.

"I make a noise and they jump. Even big kids jump," Starck says.

Step right up.

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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